The Natural Taxonomic History of Cacao

photo credit: Akvo FLOW training for UTZ – Ende, Flores, March 2016 via photopin (license)

The history of Cacao and its byproducts is still being written today. There are large corporate concerns that each will have a hand in creating the future of cacao and many of those same concerns will have differing versions of its history. That aside, it is perplexing to imagine how cacao, a small evergreen that produces orange football-shaped fruit periodically, could ever become the chocolate bars and confections that we know today. Popcorn, for example is easy to understand: one auspicious night, someone cooking corn allows a bit of the dried corn kernels to fall into the fire. Moments later: pop! Not so with cacao. Genetically speaking, it is most likely native to South America (Presilla, 2009, p. 8). Its name hails from Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753. He chose to call it Theobroma Cacao. Theobroma which, when translated becomes: food of the gods is immediately followed by cacao, a word derived from the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word: xocolati (bitter water)(“cocoa,” 2015, p. 1). The taxonomy (or classification of Theobroma cacao L. can be divided into six general subcategories: Class, Subclass, Superorder, Order, Family, and Genus. Theobroma

Class: Equisetopsida. Equisetopsida is among a few of the highest taxon groups that has normally been used to refer to the scouring rush type of land plants (related to “horsetails”). However, due to recent challenges, the Equisetopsida is now used in modern taxonomy to refer to all land plants (“Land Plants,” 2015, p. 1).

Subclass: Magnoliopsida. Magnoliopsida is a subclass that has 39 families and approximately 12,000 species of angiosperms.(“Subclass,” 2011, p. 1) They are referred to colloquially as the Ranalian complex (or a taxonomic group containing one or more orders) (“Ranalian,” 2015, p. 1) characterized by pollen displaying three pores (“Subclass,” 2011, p. 2).

Superorder: Rosanae. Rosanae is a superorder in the kingdom Plantae. Rosanae comprises more than three hundred species, cultivars, and varieties (“Rosanae,” 2000, p. 1). Vernacular names for superorder Rosanae include Apache Plume, Almond, Cydonia, Plum, Prune, Roses and Silverweed. Plum? Prune? Yes, with a bit of imagination, one might begin to imagine that as we narrow down our taxonomy, we are seeing some fruits that are beginning to share a similarity to Theobroma Cacao L. Onward!


Silverweed flower. Photo credit: Anne Burgess Creative Commons license

Order: Malvales. Maveles is a widely distributed order that only contains nine families and ‘only’ 6000 species of flowering shrubs and trees (“Malvales,” 2001, p. 1). Here we can find Balsa, Lime, Linden and Cotton. The family Diperocarpaceae contains several tropical hardwood trees. It is here we can see the trees for the forest: tropical trees that yield valuable products.

Family: Malvaceae. Malvaceae are a family that contains around 2,300 species in 200 genera. It is here that we begin to see plants and trees that add color and flavor to life: Hibiscus, Kapok tree, Shaving Brush Tree, and Hawaiian stunners like Aybiscadelphus hualalaiensis, Abutilon Menziesii and Kokia Cookei. Other, less celebrated types like the Dead Rat Tree, and the stinking fruit of the Durion (Durio Zibethinis) add a certain aromatic quality to this family.


From left to right: T Cacao, ,T. Bicolr,T T. Grandiflorum, T. Speciosm Image Credit: Roy Bateman Creative Commons license

Theobroma. At last we find the last 72 species of which Theobroma Cacao L. is a member.(“Theobroma,” 2011, p. 1) This group contains the ‘other cocoa’: Theobroma bicolor, a species similar to Theobroma Cacao L. but it is used to either make a poor quality chocolate or sometimes as an adulterant to Theobroma Cacao L. beans. (“Other Members ,” 1998, p. 1) Buyers beware! This brings us to the end of our short taxonomic tour of the food of the gods. As the future of Theobroma Cacao L. develops, perhaps there will be need to come back and revise this article, but for now, rest easy in the knowledge that Theobroma Cacao L. is being carefully monitored and catalogued by many interests from around the world.


Equisetopsida ClassificationsLand Plants. (2015). Retrieved from

Magnoliidae. (2011). Retrieved from

Malvales. (2001). Retrieved from

Presilla, M. E. (2009). A Natural and Cultural History of Chocolate. In The new taste of chocolate (1 ed., p. 8). New York, NY: 10 speed press.

Ranalian Complex. (2015). Retrieved from

Rosanae. (2000). Retrieved from

Theobroma. (2011). Retrieved from

Theobroma cacao (cocoa tree). (2015). Retrieved from

What other members of the genus Theobroma are possible origins of cocoa-like products? (1998). Retrieved from


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